Picking citrus, like riding horses, is more difficult than it appears.
  • Picking citrus, like riding horses, is more difficult than it appears.
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I trace my passion for the orange grove to a northern childhood of Tang and frozen concentrate, tract houses where trees were too young to stand without green tape and crutches. Once a year, when the electric heaters dried our skin and ticked like pressure cookers in the rooms, the cold, sweet oranges would arrive by parcel post. They came around Christmas, when my Phoenix grandparents would send a white cardboard box of Valencias to Utah. For this annual occasion, we owned an electric juicer.

When we came to Fallbrook two years ago, we built our house on a hill above an acre of orange trees.

But my husband, Tom, was born in Orange County, California, in 1947, when oranges were as common as sun. In his black-and-white childhood photographs, citrus leaves are dark and eyeshaped, like leaves in a fable.

His grandfather and father farmed ten acres of oranges where the Guadalajara tire shop and Les Jardins apartments now stand.

So when we came to Fallbrook two years ago, we built our house on a hill above an acre of orange trees. They were planted in the 1960s by a man named Mr. Barr who, like us, was not a farmer. The leaves are green and eyeshaped, and beyond them to the north and south other hills are scored with avocado, lemon, lime, and orange groves, the distant rows curving in precise, parallel lines. The groves look immortal from here, like the groves of Orange County in old aerial photographs, row upon row, mile after mile.

By 3:00 p.m. every picking day, he and a hired man have scrubbed the oranges with Ivory Liquid in an outdoor sink, dried them with towels and sunlight, sized them, counted them, and packed them.

But in Brazil, where 85 percent of the world’s Valencia naranja are grown, they have a mystical saying, “Oranges are gold in the morning, silver in the afternoon, and deadly in the evening.” After a year of farming oranges in Fallbrook, I fear it is getting on toward evening here.

DECEMBER 15,1994

In winter the mornings are clear, like ice water, and the air smells like wood smoke, cold dirt, and oranges. Some days it’s 80 degrees in the sunshine by two o’clock, but the sun hits only the highest branches, the ones that face the sky. This is because Mr. Barr planted his trees 12-on-center, or 12 feet apart, which we’re told is too close for citrus. They should be 20-on-center so sunlight falls around each tree. It’s likely that Mr. Barr meant to harvest twice as much fruit for a few years, then take out every other tree and flood the grove with sun.

He lifts a clump of leaves to show us the black soot that clings to our leaves and fruit like coal dust on Victorian buildings. “That’s the whitefly."

But no one ever removed the extra trees. Instead of spreading out to form hoop skirts of leaves, the limbs grew skyward like giraffes. Ordinary citrus trees are aloof from each other, never touching; but these arch together into bowers 20 feet above my head. The grove is beautiful, as dark as a cathedral. Slim pillars of copper light appear at dawn and dusk, illuminating gnats, dust, and dry leaves.

In October a packing house estimator stared up at the distant, shade-stunted fruit and told us, “You need to take out every other tree.” Another said to top them so the fruit would be easier to pick, and I pictured a scythe cutting the grove flat as a table. All the grove men explained that Valencias are a poor crop in San Diego County now, hardly worth the cost of water, which is high and rising. Millions of Valencias are grown in the Imperial Valley, Arizona, and the Central Valley, so it would be better, perhaps, to cut ours down.

But this year the Valencias are true to their Spanish name, la naranja tarde, the late orange that ripens in summer but can cling to a tree until Christmas or the new year, the rind growing blacker in the dusty shade. Tom has been calling the pickers since September, and they always say, “It’ll be a few weeks, we’ll call you, the price is down.” A picker in Indio said the price was so low we’d have to pay to have them picked, so ten days from Christmas the oranges dangle outside the kitchen window, a dozen to a limb.

While we wait for the price to go up, Tom says we could remove half the trees and plant oak seedlings in the empty spots. We could wait for them to grow a little, then cut the rest of the oranges down. Oaks only need water at the start, then they cost nothing, and it’s true that an ancient grove of oaks is dark and beautiful. All you need is 100 years.

While we wait for the price to go up, we have dust, shade, light, and oranges. Move past the trunks at four o’clock and the pillars of sun split into long spokes. The trunks are muscular, like horses, and the crows rise up in threes and flap south to the silver aloe field, the green barn, a thin line of palms, the pale lavender hills of Escondido.

We can’t cut them down this winter, I think. Not this year.

JANUARY 5, I995

One of the orange trees is cracked and oozing like a burned animal. The other trees have smooth bark that wrinkles as skin folds inside an elbow or a knee. When wet, citrus bark has a black, glittery-green iridescence; when dry, the hollows are furred with light-green velvet.

But psorosis, also called California scaly bark, starts in the leaves. “Scales remain attached at the periphery of the lesion and curl outward in a pagoda-roof fashion,” L.C. Knorr says in an alphabetical compendium of citrus plagues; but I can’t tell pagoda lesions from concave gum lesions, which should be painted with DN-75. Rio Grande gummosis, a third sticky affliction, requires a wound dressing of DeKaGo.

Like a hypochondriac with a new mole, I read on to the description of “slow decline,” in which “leaves are distinctly smaller, tops thinner, size and yield of fruit diminished. In extreme cases, trees do not die but are useless.”

Our fruit is rather small. Some of the tops look a little thin. The estimators have deplored our yield.

Perhaps our trees are in slow decline, host to the nematode that feeds on the roots of grapes, lilacs, persimmons, olives, climbing hempweed, and oranges. In magnified photographs, nematodes are dark and serpentine, growing like tapeworms in a 4mm slice of rootlet.

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